If you're a regular concert goer, already know the hazard of live music on your hearing. That ringing in your ears isn't a badge of honor, it's hearing loss.
As a professional music photographer, I shoot a lot of concerts, so I take my hearing protection seriously. I rely on my hearing for the cues to capture those rock-star moments, and I'm always looking for the best ear plugs to use for concerts. Here are my picks for the best earplugs to use for live music that will protect your hearing and help tinnitus.
Why Wear Earplugs to Concerts?
So, why wear earplugs when attending concerts? The answer is really simple, and one you already know: hearing loss. That ringing in your ears after a show? That's damage to your hearing, something you can never get back.
Most live music reaches levels of between the range of 100 to 120-dB. At this level, hearing damage can occur in less than a minute. Needless to say, you risk hearing damage in a timeframe far shorter than a standard concert, let alone a song.
So if you really love live music, the smart thing to do is to wear earplugs to protect your hearing. Now that we're covered why you should wear earplugs, let's get into your options.
Types of Earplugs
There are a few main types of earplugs, ranging from your dollar-store variety to custom earplugs that can cost you a couple hundred dollars. All have their pros and cons.
Foam earplugs are the most readily available and cheapest kind of universal fit (non-custom) earplugs. The foam plugs are compressed and inserted into the ear canal and can offer the highest level of decibel reduction. The downside is that proper insertion can greatly affect the fit, comfort, and effectiveness of the earplugs. Because they need a bit of technique for best results, they may not be the best option if you need to regularly insert and remove them (say, if you're a music photographer at a festival, for example). Even high-quality foam earplugs like Hearos are available at most chain stores.
Flanged earplugs offer several lips or rims in a cone shape that create a seal against the ear canal in a universal fit. The advantage of flanged earplugs over standard foam earplugs is that they are pretty much fool-proof to use, so long as they are inserted at a proper depth into the ear. The downside is that flanged earplugs may not be as comfortable to wear for extended periods of time for some people. The Etymotic ER-20 is a classic example of a quality flanged earplug, which is also a high-fidelity earplug, though it's important to note that not all flanged earplugs are musician-quality.
High-fidelity earplugs are designed for musicians and performers. Unlike traditional earplugs that can muffle and distort sound, the quality of the sound remains clear — the volume is simply attenuated to a lower level. This effect is achieved by a special acoustic filter that lowers noise levels in a uniform way across the audible sound spectrum. High-fidelity earplugs can come in reusable, universal fit as well as custom-molded versions.
These are custom-moulded earplugs that are made out of silicone. They are contoured to the inside of your ears, so they promise a perfect fit — there is essentially no pressure on the sides of your ear canal, which is the cause of discomfort from other earplugs. The downside is that custom earplugs generally run $100 or more, plus a visit to an audiologist who will make a mold.
Custom earplugs are offered by companies specializing in high-end audio and hearing devices, such as JH Audio, Westone, Sensaphonics.
Custom earplugs are divided into two main types, solid silicone and high-fidelity musicians earplugs. The latter use attenuating filters, the majority using those by Etymotic Research, which produce a flat attenuation for natural, clear sound that is safe on your ears. The filters for musician's earplugs come in varying levels of attenuation, so you can choose the degree of sound protection that is appropriate for you. For music photographers like myself, I recommend the ER-25 filters, which offer maximum protection.
The Best Earplugs for Concerts and Live Music
Now that you're familiar with the types of earplugs and the general differences between them, here are my recommendations for the best earplugs of each kind. I've tried a lot of earplugs, from premium options like the Flare Audio Isolate to more disposable earplugs than I can count, but the following four options are my best recommendations.
Hearos makes great foam earplugs and the Ultimate Softness plugs are just as advertised — extremely comfortable. In addition, they block a ton of noise at -32dB reduction. These are a fantastic option for long events where lower noise reduction options would not protect your ears as well, and where comfort is key. I recommend these earplugs for very log events where comfort and high decibel reduction is more important than sound quality.
- Extremely comfortable for extended use
- Massive reduction in sound levels
- Fiddly (foam has to be compressed and allowed to expand for best fit)
- Low-fidelity sound experience
Etymotic is a company that pioneered hi-fidelity earplugs. This is a company that makes very hi-fi audio equipment, so they really know their stuff. Unlike normal earplugs, Etymotic's earplugs don't sound muffled or distorted — the sound levels are simply lowered to safe levels. In other words, there are no excuses not to wear earplugs if you've said live music doesn't sound as good. I've personally used Etymotic's ER20 earplugs for years and they are a great option.
- Quick to insert
- Live music still sounds great, just at safer levels
- Re-useable and still relatively inexpensive
- May not be as comfortable as foam or custom options for some people
- May have to be replaced after a few months use
Earasers are a Hi-Fidelity earplug that has two goals:
1) Provide level of fit and comfort of a custom earplug without the expense and need to see an audiologist
2) Create a hi-fi experience at safe sound levels.
Unlike flanged or foam plugs, the Earasers are shaped with a slightly oval shape, which is more closely fitted to the natural shape of the ear canal. This means that the silicone molds very closely to the ear without as much pressure to friction fit, which translates into increased comfort. This is huge for events like festivals, where earplug fatigue is a very real thing.
The parent company is a manufacturer of hearing aids, so I feel that they are able to provide a level of expertise on extended comfort and the performance of their products. The design of the Earasers are based on hearing aid tips.
Earasers offers three levels of decibel reduction — -19dB, -26dB, and -31dB reduction at peak reduction. This is all at a “hi-fidelity” attenuation, where sound levels are reduced at flat frequency response. In addition, Earasers are offered in four sizes: x-small, small, medium, and large. I really love the ability to customize the attenuation and size for the needs of each individual.
- Quick to insert
- Live music still sounds great, just at safer levels
- Very small
- Easily cleaned/washable
- Increased comfort over other universal earplugs
- Relatively expensive
- Proper fit may require trying different sizes
If you're in the music industry, I highly recommend a set of custom earplugs. The one massive advantage of custom earplugs is that they provide a perfect fit time after time and for extended use. This benefit cannot be overstated, especially for users who need reliable, professional hearing protection.
For custom earplugs, you'll need to get fitted by an audiologist. They will create custom impressions of your ear canal, which are then sent off to a manufacturer.
Custom earplugs come in two main types: solid silicone and musicians earplugs with high-fidelity filters. The solid plugs are also called sleep plugs — they will offer the most sound attenuation.
I can highly recommend getting your earplugs from JH Audio, who make high-fidelity IEMs for some of the biggest musicians in the world. Earplugs are not their bread and butter business, but the JH Audio people are just fine folks, so I have to give them a shout out.
Aside from JH Audio, Westone is one of the biggest fulfillers of custom earplugs. If you go to an audiologist for custom musicians earplugs, there's good bet that they will send your impressions off to Westone for production. Both Westone and JH Audio offer solid and musicians earplugs.
- Highest degree of comfort, even for all-day festivals
- Quick insertion
- Highest fidelity (with “musicians earplugs”), so music sounds
- High degree of sound attenuation
- Durable, lasting for years
- Relatively expensive
Here's my breakdown for recommendations on earplugs based on your experience. For casual music photographers or concert-goers, foam earplugs are great. If you absolutely love live music and want to hear every note, high-fidelity earplugs like the Etymotic Research ER-20xs are fantastic. Up from there, Earasers offer almost all of the benefits of custom earplugs without the need to be fit by an audiologist.
All that said, if you are serious about your hearing protection and serious about seeing, hearing, and/or photographing live music like I am, my absolute highest recommendation is that you invest in a pair of custom earplugs.
Custom-fit musician's earplugs offer the best in comfort, ease of use, and hi-fidelity sound quality in an earplug for concerts. While pricey, there's not another investment in your hearing that I can recommend more highly.
The Earasers offer nearly all of the benefits of custom earplugs at a fraction of the cost. You get the comfort, hi-fi sound, and ease of use that customs offer. Easily a great option for any regular concert-goer.
The Etymotic ER20xs are a great option if you don't want to break the bank on earplugs, but want a dependable, reusable option that still offers hi-fidelity sound quality from a highly trusted audio manufacturer.
If you want to protect your hearing as a concert-goer, you cannot go wrong with the Hearos Ultimate Softness Series. They are cheap, comfy, and block a ton of sound, safely protecting your hearing with zero doubt.